Photo: Scott Kelly/NASA via AP

“Plans to advertise from space have been around for decades, but the latest proposals have met fierce criticism.

In August, the Canadian company Geometric Energy Corporation (GEC) announced that it wanted to launch a small satellite with a billboard on it on a SpaceX rocket. The story immediately went viral, and SpaceX and GEC received a barrage of criticism.

In 2019, Russian entrepreneur Vlad Sitnikov got caught up in a similar controversy. ‘I’m an ad guy’, Sitnikov told Al Jazeera. ‘So I thought it would be cool to see a new type of media in the sky…’
‘A big wave of hate crushed me. I decided to halt the project, because people around the world started hating me.’ His start-up, StartRocket, has been in limbo ever since.

A key objection to space advertising proposals is that they will contribute to light pollution from space, a problem that is growing even without ads in orbit.

Advertising in outer space might seem like a vulgar idea, but it’s one with a long history. It’s also getting more popular because the cost of going to space is falling. But the side effects, such as light pollution and space debris, might not be worth it…

Not in my low earth orbit

With space becoming more accessible, and less costly to access, proposals for using space for advertising or entertainment purposes have been increasing. Besides the GEC and StartRocket projects, Japanese start-up ALE wants to use satellites that drop small balls to create artificial shooting stars on demand – a proposition that raised close to $50m in venture funding.

One key objection to these proposals [space advertising schemes] is that they will contribute to light pollution from space, a problem that is growing even without ads in orbit.

‘Until recently most of our work had been on ground-based light pollution’, said Jeffrey Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory, and chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on Light Pollution, Radio Interference, and Space Debris. ‘The issue of light pollution from space is new territory for us, and it only started in 2019 with the launch of the SpaceX Starlink satellites,’ he told Al Jazeera.

Large, so-called ‘constellations’ of small, low-flying satellites have boomed in recent years. For example, SpaceX Starlink wants to launch tens of thousands of satellites to offer internet connections all over the world.

For astronomers, however, to observe space they need relatively dark skies. Yet bright outdoor lights on land, or satellites that emit or reflect light, like the Starlink constellation, can ruin what they do. And Hall fears space billboards might make the problem worse.

‘Satellites leave very bright streaks in images’, he said. ‘The streaks can saturate pixels in the image, and completely ruin it…’

‘Things are moving so fast it makes sense to slow down until we understand the impacts of what we’re doing’, said Hall. Space law

It is possible that space law will prevent satellite billboards. Space is subject to the 1966 Outer Space Treaty, which sees space as a global commons.

‘There is nothing specific in the treaty about space advertising’, said professor emerita Joanne Gabrynowicz, director of the International Institute of Space Law. ‘But article 9 does require signatories to exercise ‘due regard’ of other signatories’ interests and to avoid ‘harmful interference’ to other nations’ space activities,’ she told Al Jazeera.

Satellite billboards that impede astronomers from observing space could be subject to this. On top of that, the US passed a national law during the 1990s that prohibits space advertising that might be deemed ‘obtrusive…’

Of course, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation was reviewed and approved by US authorities, even though it impacts astronomy. International law also depends on how treaties are applied at the national level. The Russian state would, for example, need to decide whether it sees a Russian space advertising startup as being in line with the Outer Space Treaty. Yet there is a legal argument for blocking space advertising if it would cause too much light pollution…”

— By Tom Cassauwers, Alazeera

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